Skip to main content

Southwest Airlines Community

My Favorite "Non-Wife"...And Her Long, Long Road Home


On Labor Day, we are proud to present this post about the remarkable friendship between two Southwest Airlines Employees.


It's incredible that it's been five years since the tragedy that started with Hurricane Katrina began to unfold on the Gulf Coast.  America has endured catasrophic storms before, but something like that had never happened to Southwest Airlines (and we hope it never happens again!). I'm not going to focus on the death and destruction that the storm and the levee breeches caused.  You've seen the recent anniversary coverage on t.v. and, if you're like me, you haven't forgotten about it yet anyway.  Instead, I'd like to tell you the story of one Southwest Airlines Employee....and her long road home.  (And a long blog piece follows, just to let you know!)

Patti Lannon was, in 2005, a Customer Service Agent for Southwest Airlines in New Orleans.  A longtime airline Employee, she had started her aviation career with a now-defunct airline in the Northeast and transferred to the Crescent City, where she met her husband.  She joined Southwest in 2001, right around the time of that other never-before-and-never-again event, 9/11.  Patti, her husband, two daughters and one of two sons live in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, just two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain.  The day before the storm hit, they, like the rest of the city, were under evacuation orders, so Patti and the kids bought tickets on Southwest to Nashville to stay with their eldest son (also a Southwest Employee) in his one-bedroom apartment.  Papa John (Patti's husband) drove with the animals to ride out the storm in Baton Rouge and joined them as soon as the winds died down.

While they were gone....Katrina almost destroyed their home.  What the wind didn't damage, the water did.

Of course, like millions of other evacuated Gulf Coast residents, they had no idea what was happening at home, other than what the t.v. coverage showed--and I can't imagine the kind of fear and uncertainty they endured.  However, as soon as he was allowed back into the city, John left Nashville and headed back to Metairie to assess the damage, leaving Mama Hen Patticakes to keep the family together and calm.  John's reports from Metairie were both horrifying and heartbreaking.  His uncle, who also lived in New Orleans, was lost in the disaster.  John was living in the single inhabitable room, no power, no running water, and no family.   Like much of New Orleans--rebuilding was going to take a long, long time.

And the hits just kept on coming.  Still in Nashville, only a DAY after the storm Patti was in a broadside car crash. The wreck totalled her friend's car, so while nursing bumps, cuts and bruises, Patti had to remain in "Mom" mode to keep her family calm.  But it soon became evident that the situation in Nashville for 14-year-old Julia and 21-year-old Michael (who has special needs) were not suitable.  They decided that the best solution for everyone, with particular attention on Michael, was for Patti to take the a leave of absence from work and to move in with family in Salem, Ohio.  The schools there were very good, safe, and had an excellent special needs program that seemed perfect for Michael.  The oldest daughter—who before the storm had been a student at University of New Orleans—would return to New Orleans to help her dad go through debris and begin rebuilding, as well as do volunteer work (as a sidenote, UNO cancelled their fall, 2005 semester because of the storm and flood damage).  And so off they went--Patti, Julia, and Michael moving to Ohio without dad, without big brother and big sister, and without their Soutwest Family.

At about this time, Southwest was realizing that the New Orleans human diaspora was going to be a long-term situation--most certainly longer-term than anything else in SWA history.  Our Executive Office's Internal Customer Care group, under the direction of then-President Colleen Barrett, began to quietly match up displaced New Orleans SWA Employees with various SWA HDQ Departments.  Schedule Planning was "assigned" the Lannon clan (and I will thank God from now on for becoming linked to this family!).  The first time I called Patti to introduce myself she was SO excited to hear from me--and honestly, after hearing her recount everything that had happened, I honestly was nearly speechless (which those of you who know me realize is a VERY difficult thing to do!) .  Her story sure made my life seem less chaotic...and made me even more determined to "be there" for her and to help the whole family as much as I could.

Over the next several months, Patti and I talked frequently and she remained in amazingly good cheer--although as time went on more often than not she sounded dead-dog-tired.  Over and over she told me that, as a mother, her first priority was to make sure her kids were emotionally and physically secure.  So, she persevered, for no other reason than because she had to.  And things remained difficult for her family in Ohio.  Structure and routine is very, very important for son Michael, and all of the disruption, movement, and changes had been extremely taxing on him.  Although they were with family in Salem, Michael’s emotional and behavioral health began to deteriorate significantly.  Yet Patti remained Michael's, and indeed her whole family's, rock.

Patti and I became very close, phoning each other several times each week.  To this day, I don't know whether I was her "vent-a-hood" or whether she had become my soap opera.  So as the Lannons moved slowly towards their first cold Ohio winter, Schedule Planning raffled passes within HDQ to raise funds to help the family buy winter clothing  (certainly not what they'd wear for a winter in New Orleans!).  One of our group even had a “gently worn” winter coat that was Patti’s size.  We sent them the coat and the raffle proceeds in late October, before the first snow fell.  Patti says that the first time she wore the “gently used” winter coat was on their first visit to the new family psychologist, who helped them all deal with post-traumatic-stress disorder—and the receptionist at the doctor’s office mentioned how much she liked Patti's coat, and asked her where she got it.  Patti says she just laughed--and told her it was a “gift from friends."  She was absolutely correct!

Time passed.  We helped them get home for Thanksgiving, the first time that Patti, Julia, and Michael had seen their nearly destroyed home.  They were devastated, but at the same time ecstatic to be together again.  They were cramped but they were a family...if only for a week.  But after returning to Ohio, I could hear the depression in my Patticake's voice.  Even  though Ohio had embraced the family with arms wide open, it had nearly broken her heart to leave her New Orleans again.  Because we're a Department of Planners, my Colleagues and I immediately began to work to get the family back together for Christmas.  We made certain we would help make this a memorable Holiday Season (although, after all they'd been through in 2005, it could have been nothing else!).  Again, Schedule Planning provided transportation so that the family--the *whole* family, including the son in Nashville--could be "home for the holidays."  And for a week--the Lannons were again together.

This time, it was easier for Patti, Julia and Michael to return to Ohio.  The depression, not as deep, and Salem, more familiar.  Both kids were doing very well, and the family had become well known in Salem as "that Katrina family."   The local paper did a story on them, in which Patti was quick to sing the praises of Southwest Airlines.  During a drive to the psychologist's office in Youngstown, Patti called her favorite radio talk program just to tell them how much she was enjoying the show--and when she mentioned she was a Katrina evacuee, they kept her on the air for over 30 minutes asking about her experience, the rebuilding, and her situation.  She says she was able to plug Southwest Airlines at least nine times.  At the end of the call, the hosts invited Patti and her family to a Northeastern Ohio Food Fair that the station was sponsoring on March 26th—as the guests of honor!

Still, although that Ohio house was acquiring a slight patina of "normalcy," it wasn't home, and things weren't normal.  Julia was doing well in school and making friends--but at home in New Orleans, her dad had lost his job.  Michael was improving and enjoying the stability, but Patti still couldn't return to work (the nearest Southwest Station with openings was two hours away, making the commute competely impractical).  And Patti was finding the strangest things would remind her that things were not normal.  Odd things, like commercials for Zatarain, the line of New Orleans-style prepared foods, would "set her off."   Listening to Patti describe that kind of longing--her yearning for her life from before the storm--was like listening to a best friend grieve for what was happenening and what was lost.  And I grieved with her.

But our phone calls with each other were anything but depressing.  We would laugh like CRAZY.  I kept her posted on the goings on at Southwest, the bizarreness of my life, told her about our slow rebuilding of our service pattern at MSY, exchanged BAD jokes, and we just talked about life.  Patti taught me, too.  She taught me that there are times when it doesn't matter how you feel--as a parent and as a Leader of a Family, your feelings go out the window and you just do it.  Take charge.  (My friend Sandy, a former SWA Flight Attendant, calls this going into "evacuate the airplane" mode.)  And my Patticakes did it magnificently.

By the end of the school year in June of 2006, things were good enough in New Orleans for Patti, Julia, and Michael to pack up and head move, finally, back home.  I rejoiced with them.  But they found it wasn't home, at least not the home and the life they so fondly remembered.  Their house, and their city, was still in ruins.  And Southwest's very cautious rebuilding of service in New Orleans meant that there wasn't a spot for Patti to return to as a Customer Service Agent, at least, not yet.  But she had MORE than enough to do.  Dealing with the insurance companies, the State of Louisiana, the paperwork, and rebuilding the house was a fulltime job itself.  And although it wasn't the return to her pre-storm life Patti would have preferred, that wouldn't have been real.  And the family was together again.  Home was different--but it was home.

But soon, a difficult decision again loomed for Patti.  Her job "protection" was about to run out.  We talked several times about what her options were  But she began to tell me she was changing her mind on holding out for her old job as a Customer Service Agent.  At the time, Southwest was hiring Flight Attendants.  LOTS of Flight Attendants.  Patti decided that walking across the sky was the job for her!  Life was certainly not back to normal in New Orleans but her family had settled back in for the long term.  Patti felt her time away from home would be good for them--and good for her.

She applied.  And got the job.  And EXCELLED in training.  She put on her wings and instantly loved her new career.  The first time I talked about her after her first trip she sounded happier, and more enthusiastic, than ever.  After graduation, she kept telling me she couldn't believe that Southwest hadn't just cast her off and that this new opportunity was made available to her.  It wasn't given to her--she did the paperwork, aced the interview, and passed the training.  Patti was grateful.  And once again, from Patti's wisdom, I learned that opportunities may be given.  Successes, like Patti's, are earned.

After Patti "went Inflight," we weren't able to talk nearly as much.  We spoke sporadically, but it was difficult because Patti flew.  A LOT.  And I worked.  A LOT.  So our schedules were difficult to synch-up.  But still, like good friends always do, when we caught up it was like we'd just talked a day earlier.  She kept me updated on how having the ability to pick up extra flying was helping in the renovation efforts, and on how those renovation efforts were going (in a word:  slow).  I thanked her for teaching me what it means to be strong and take care of a family.  I put that knowledge to good use when I lost my dear Mother in December of 2007.

Fast-forward to this week--the five-year anniversary of Katrina.  Patti and I chatted for the first time in quite a while earlier this week, and, again, the hits just keep on coming for the Lannon family.  Patti was just about to have orthoscopic knee surgery, fixing a problem that's been brewing for years.  And the kicker:  husband John was diagnosed last week with Stage IV Colon Cancer.  But, in keeping with her nature--what details were Patti eager to talk about?  How wonderful Southwest was being about her current disasters.  She'd already received cards and food baskets from our HDQ Executive Office Team, and her Supervisor at our Orlando Inflight Base has started a prayer chain for both John and Patti.  Almost as a side-note, she told me that John's doctors have given him a great post-treatment prognosis, and that her knee doctor had told her she'd be back at work in week to ten days.

So once again, my once and future Patticakes is a bubbling spring of optimism, thankfullness, and positivity.  For the umpteenth time, during our one brief conversation this week, she taught me something:  no situation is too dire to justify pessimism.  And an "attitude of gratitude" attracts success, just like Patti attracted Southwest Airlines.  (and yes, I meant that exactly the way I wrote it.)

Now, if you've read this far, congratulations.  But you might be wondering:  why have I written, at this length, about the Lannon's and their experience?  Simple.  One: tens of thousands of families (including many Southwest Airlines ones) affected by Hurricane Katrina had similar experiences, and continue to struggle.  The story of the Lannon Family is just one of those.  I hope you will think about that, redouble your appreciation of your life, and do what you can to help the rebuilding efforts along the Gulf. 

Two: to talk about how Southwest Airlines does what we can to help our fellow Employees in crisis.  We can't completely eliminate the chaos--but at the very least we, as colleagues, are there for each other.

And three.  I wanted you to know about the amazing nature, and indomitable spirit, of one Mrs. Patti Lannon.  Love you, Patticakes.  You, John, and the kids are in my prayers, the prayers of your co-workers--and hopefully, the prayers of the Blogosphere.

Breathe peace, folks.  Thanks for reading "Nuts About Southwest!"